“And what is right speech? Abstaining from lying, from divisive speech, from abusive speech, & from idle chatter: This is called right speech.” — SN 45.8
“Monks, a statement endowed with five factors is well-spoken, not ill-spoken. It is blameless & unfaulted by knowledgeable people. Which five? It is spoken at the right time. It is spoken in truth. It is spoken affectionately. It is spoken beneficially. It is spoken with a mind of good-will.” — AN 5.198
In the day that the above statements were first expressed, communication was almost entirely face to face. When we talk to others in person, we have the advantage of seeing facial and body expressions, asking for clarity instantly, and we have a feel for how well the conversation is moving. Communication has changed in ways that bring new complications. We live in a digital world now, where communication is being passed via the written word through many mediums: email, texting, discussion forums, Facebook, Twitter, etc. Because of this, Right Speech is not less important, it’s more important.
Digital communication comes with it’s own set of problems that can make communication even more challenging than talking face to face. Meaning and intent can be lost or misunderstood with a few unskillfully typed words. Often there is not enough context to glean the intent. User names remove accountability, allowing people to say things online that they’d never say to someone in person. Typing out words quickly and hitting enter is all too easy, and encourages us to be impulsive. And with our words competing against the vast amount of other information out there, it could look like a whole lot of blah, blah, blah!
When I first investigated Right Speech in my practice years ago, I focused on the being careful not to lie or be divisive, and I struggled a bit with the idle chatter. Over the years, as my communications spread in digital media, I found my practice deepening as I investigated Right Speech in new ways.
As I’ve worked in various online communities over the years, I’ve become more mindful to how my thinking processes work when I have a keyboard at my fingertips versus when I’m face to face with someone. In spite of the fact that when I type my thoughts into a forum, and I know I am communicating with others, I notice how the self arises. The focus of self wraps itself up tightly in my opinions, my thoughts, what I want to express, and the desire to be heard. If I’m not mindful, I can easily find myself typing out my opinion for the sake of merely expressing my opinion, almost forgetting that I’m communicating with others. This is a subtle and sneaky way self arises.
I find it helpful to revisit Right Speech often, to remind myself the reasons for communication in the first place. Do we need to share our opinions to help others, or are we asserting our sense of self? When we are annoyed by the beliefs or opinions of others is it because the self is asserting itself? Are we honestly dealing with our intent in engaging in online conversations? What are those intents?
When I look at my intent for getting involved with any online conversation, I learn a lot about myself, my need for approval concerning my ideas or beliefs, my need to align myself with others who think in a similar way, my need to assert my opinion when I think others are wrong. I find in investigating Right Speech, I discover new ways the self arises, responds, etc. It’s interesting to take the investigation further and resist responding when I feel the self wanting to assert itself, or when I feel the need to correct someone who I feel is wrong. How much of my communication is because I want to be helpful, how much is idle chatter, and how much is friendship building?
Investigating Right Speech can give us special insight into our daily motivations, into our intentions, and into the assertion of self, or ego if you prefer that word. I find in exploring Right Speech I also have to call on my mindfulness skills, Right Intention, and Right Effort.
I’d like to invite you to take pause the next time you go to type an entry in an online discussion, or on Facebook, and ask yourself, Does what I’m going to type fall into Right Speech? What is my motivation here?
And of course, we all still have Right Speech to investigate when talking to others in person. A while back, I had noticed that when I met in person with friends, or via video, which is similar, I’d often find my self chattering about my own life and interests. I promised myself that whenever I engaged in conversation with a friend that I would make sure that not far into the conversation I’d make a point to ask about them, their interests, their lives, and to always make sure I am giving back to the friendship through Right Speech. I do very much appreciate the people I’ve chosen to have in my life as friends, and I want to make sure they know I am genuinely interested in them and how they’re doing.
The more I investigate Right Speech, the more useful I find it to be. Right Speech is a wonderful tool if you are willing to investigate it, and I think you’ll find doing so will enrich your practice.